Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

Lucian Freud: RIP

On July 20, 2011 famed realist painter Lucian Freud died in London at the age of 88.

The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) held a major retrospective of works by Freud in 2003. Consisting of 110 paintings, prints, and drawings, it was the one and only exhibit held at MOCA that I was ever impressed with. While the exhibition was still running the co-editor of CounterPunch magazine, Jeffrey St. Clair, published a review of the show. Titled The Paintings of Lucian Freud: Flesh and Its Discontents, the essay is a close approximation of my own feelings regarding the artist. An excerpt:

” (….) from the beginning, he cast his die with the figurative painters and against the mainstream of the abstractionists. It was a risky move and perhaps he wasn’t all that confident about it. Even today there are those who call Freud hopelessly out of date. You can hear the chiding: Too serious. Not ironic. Too much technique. And the concession must be made. Freud is very serious; his irony is dark and far from the flippant excretions of a Jeff Koons; and his is a master technician, cribbing from sources as varied as Egyptian painting and sculpture, Durer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Chardin, Velasquez, Cezanne, Courbet and Bonnard.”

 Dead heron - Lucian Freud. Oil on canvas. 1945.

Dead heron - Lucian Freud. Oil on canvas. 1945.

As if echoing St. Clair’s words the Chief executive of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Charles Saumarez Smith, commenting on the death of the painter, said that Freud’s passing marked “the end of an era”, and now that Freud is gone, “it is as though the figurative tradition has gone with him.”

Mr. Saumarez Smith went on to say of those artists who continue to carry the banner of figurative realism, “it is hard to argue that these artists are part of the mainstream.”

Naturally I beg to differ. While Saumarez Smith may believe Freud’s “surprisingly unfashionable focus on the human form” to be a thing of the past, the discipline has outlasted the complete dominance of abstract expressionism; I have no doubt figurative realism will also survive the whims and excesses of today’s postmodernist art.

LONDON CALLING!

"London Calling." Poster designed by an anonymous artist announcing the December 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of counterfire.org

"London Calling." Poster designed by an anonymous artist announcing the December 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of counterfire.org

The May 2010 elections in the United Kingdom brought to power the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government of prime minister David Cameron (former head of the Conservative Party), and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat leader). Theirs is the first coalition government in the U.K. since the Second World War, and by all appearances it is an unmitigated disaster for the British people.

The “Con-Dem” coalition, as it has been justly labeled by critics, is implementing savage cuts to social services that will result in cuts totaling $130 billion by 2015.

The Con-Dem budget cuts are broadly attacking the public sector, from council housing, aid for the elderly, fire and police services, etc., to deep cuts in education and national arts programs.

Public resistance to the cuts is growing, but a militant refusal to accept the government’s austerity measures has so far been best expressed by U.K. students, who have been organizing teach-ins, walk-outs, marches, and other forms of protest. Con-Dem cuts to education have been especially vicious, with up to 80% of the teaching budget to be slashed and student tuition tripled to 9,000 pounds a year (during the election campaign Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg promised his party would vote against any tuition hike). Students are also opposed to the Con-Dem move to eliminate the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a subsidy of £30 a week to low-income students that helps with the purchase of books, transportation, computer supplies, and other necessities in higher education.

On Nov. 10th over 52,000 students marched through central London - a protest against education cuts that culminated in the forceful occupation of Tory party headquarters. Days later, on November 24th, around 100,000 students participated in the “Carnival of Resistance” national demonstrations. Afterwards student activists announced “London Calling,” another day of national demonstrations to take place on Thursday, December 9, 2010. This time the students vow to march on the Parliament in London, where the Con-Dem coalition government will be voting on education cuts. Clare Solomon, president of the Student Union at the University of London, hopes the march will be the biggest student protest in history, saying “This is the fight of our lives and we don’t intend to lose it.”

Photograph of the Tate Modern occupied by demonstrators on Dec. 6, 2010, in opposition to cuts in arts funding. Photo courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

Photograph of the Tate Modern occupied by demonstrators on Dec. 6, 2010, in opposition to cuts in arts funding. Photo courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

The poster announcing the London Calling student protest knowingly refers to London Calling, the apocalyptic song and title for the 1979 double album by the U.K. punk band, The Clash. Designed by the band’s official “war artist” Ray Lowry (1944-2008), the album cover featured a photo of Clash bass player Paul Simonon violently smashing his electric guitar onstage during the band’s 1979 New York performance. Lowry’s graphic design was a combative inversion of the album design for Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut album, which used a black and white photo of the crooning Presley strumming an acoustic guitar.

The song London Calling was released as a single in 1979, and its politically charged lyrics became anthemic to the international punk movement. Apparently those confrontational lyrics have become eternal; a stanza from The Clash song is quoted on the London Calling student poster - “London calling to the faraway towns, now that war is declared and battle come down.” By alluding to the contentious spirit of The Clash, U.K. students are upping the ante in their row with the Con-Dem government… but they are not alone.

Devastating cuts are being made to U.K. arts funding, with the Con-Dem coalition proposing that nearly 30 percent be slashed from the national arts budget, a move sure to ravage galleries, museums, community arts organizations, orchestras, and theaters. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, Michael Boyd, has called the cuts “a big blow to theatres.” Actor Sir Patrick Stewart condemned the cuts, saying they will be “challenging if not life-threatening in some areas of live theatre.” Grants to museums are slated to be cut by 15 percent, and money to the Arts Council of England, which distributes funds to hundreds of arts venues - will be slashed by some 30 percent. Arts education in U.K. schools is also targeted for reduction or elimination. Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE), which has provided arts education plans to schools, has had its budget cut in half to £19 million. The aforementioned only begins  to describe the ruinous cuts - but how are U.K. artists resisting the conservative onslaught?

A number of artists have organized the “Arts Against Cuts” (AAC) web log, which is described as “an umbrella space for students, artists and cultural workers to display and align their ideas and actions against the cuts.” AAC has reported that students at Goldsmiths College and Camberwell College of Arts have both seized and occupied buildings in protest against arts cuts. AAC was also involved in a protest at the December 6, 2010 Turner prize awards at the Tate Britain.

The 2010 Turner prize winner was “sound artist” Susan Philipsz, who won for her “aural sculpture” titled Lowlands, a tape recording of Philipsz singing the 16th century Scottish lament “Lowlands Away” while standing beneath three different bridges over the Clyde river in Glasgow, Scotland. The prestigious Turner is Britain’s top arts award, and 1st place winner Philipsz received 25,000 pounds ($39,000). The Turner competition is heavily weighted in favor of postmodern conceptual works, with painters effectively barred as competitors. As usual, the “anti-anti art” Stuckist group held a protest in front of the Tate, goading Turner prize party goers with signs that read; “Abandon Art All Ye Who Enter Here.” Stuckist spokeswoman Jasmine Maddock commented to the press, “It’s not art, it’s music. They don’t give the Mercury Music Prize to a painter, they shouldn’t give the Turner Prize to a singer.”

  Flyer designed by an anonymous artist from "Arts Against Cuts," celebrating the Dec. 6 protest at the Tate Modern and announcing the Dec. 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

Flyer designed by an anonymous artist from "Arts Against Cuts," celebrating the Dec. 6 protest at the Tate Modern and announcing the Dec. 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

But this year the Stuckists were not the lone rabble-rousers at the gala art world affair. The Dec. 6 event was disrupted by up to 400 students and art teachers from London art colleges, who invaded the Tate gallery to protest the arts cuts. The protestors inside the Tate held an hour long teach-in against the cuts and how to resist them, then attempted to enter the Turner prize room with the intention of interrupting the televised proceedings. Tate security personnel prevented the protesters from entering the hall where the award ceremony took place, but the demonstrator’s chants of “Education should be free for all - not a product for purchase,” reverberated throughout the museum and could plainly be heard in the TV broadcast. The chanting nearly made the announcement of the Turner prize winner inaudible. To her credit, when Susan Philipsz accepted her prize she said, “I support Artists Against the Cuts.”

The protestors refused to leave the museum, and instead continued to hold a mass teach-in and life drawing class near the Tate’s entrance. A series of speakers addressed the crowd regarding the arts cuts, and others handed out flyers about the Con-Dem plan to cut arts funding. In the aftermath of the Tate debacle, Artists Against Cuts released a flyer with a headline that read, “We Shut Down the Turner Prize; Now Let’s Shut Down London.” The flyer exhorted readers to participate in the London Calling mass student demonstration, stating;

“this is the most important national day of action before parliament vote on legislation which will treble university fees. we must fight back against this DESTRUCTIVE ATTACK on the arts, humanities, and social services. come and join the arts bloc as we march to protect the intellectual health of our nation. we are not just fighting fees; we are fighting philistinism!”

The British public’s rejection of the Con-Dem cuts, and in particular their disdain for the double-crossing Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, should be instructive for citizens of the United States. The Tory leader David Cameron ran his election campaign on a platform of “voting for hope, voting for optimism, voting for change.” Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg ran his campaign on promises of a “new politics.” It all has a familiar ring to it. Once in power as a ruling coalition, the “change” promised by the Con-Dem partnership became the most draconian cuts in social services since the 1920s. Now that President Obama has extended the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, a betrayal of his campaign promises and a total capitulation to the billionaire class, the nature of his administration stands fully exposed.

Look to the rising masses of the U.K. for an answer, and remember the lyrics to that Clash song - “London Calling to the underworld, come out of the cupboards, you boys and girls.”

UPDATES:

In a forgone conclusion the Parliament voted on Dec. 9th to pass the tuition hikes, despite massive protests across the U.K. The 323-302 vote will raise tuition fees for university students from around $5,200 to $14,200. Students and their supporters are planning further creative protest actions against the Con-Dem austerity regime. On Dec. 10th Counterfire.org reported that “students across the country are meeting to form a National Student Assembly and to plan the next steps in escalating the campaign.”

Protestors occupy the National Gallery in London, Dec. 9, 2010. Some 200 protestors listen to a speaker as he makes a point about Manet's painting, "The Execution of Maximilian." Photo: Slade Occupation.

Protestors occupy the National Gallery in London, Dec. 9, 2010. Some 200 protestors listen to a speaker as he makes a point about Manet's painting, "The Execution of Maximilian." Photo: Slade Occupation.

During the Dec. 9 protests the students behind the occupation of the Slade School of Fine Art (Slade Occupation), Arts Against Cuts, and other art activist groups and their supporters, occupied the National Gallery in London. Approximately 200 students and artists took over room 43 of the National Gallery in order to hold a teach-in regarding the Con-Dem austerity plans. The activists seized that particular room because, as John Jordan of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (one of the groups that participated in the occupation) put it; “We chose room 43 because Manet’s Execution of Maximilian is displayed there and there is a work by Courbet down the corridor. It shows two ways of artists responding to rebellion. Manet’s painting is about political betrayal and Courbet gave up painting and applied his creativity to the Paris Commune.”

Arts Against Cuts released a flyer at the event that read; “We are here because: All our country’s art schools are under immediate threat from this education bill. We must preserve our cultural future as much as our cultural past. We are not just fighting fees and cuts - we are fighting philistinism, culture is invaluable. We act in solidarity with public sector workers and employees of the National Gallery.” Gallery staff did not interfere with the occupation, even after the National Gallery had closed. Participants in the non-violent action wrote a collective manifesto they titled The Nomadic Hive Manifesto before finally ending their protest at around 8 p.m. Slade Occupation has posted photos of the occupation teach-in, and Arts Against Cuts have also posted photos.

Sternchen Productions have uploaded a beautiful video of U.K. citizens engaged in an anti-austerity protest action that took place on Dec. 8.

Why Beauty Matters

Detail of Sandro Botticelli’s 1482-1486 tempera on canvas painting, Birth of Venus (La Nascita di Venere), as used in the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

Detail of Sandro Botticelli’s 1482-1486 tempera on canvas painting, "Birth of Venus" (La Nascita di Venere), as used in the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In November of 2009 the BBC network in the UK ran The Modern Beauty Season, a series of films produced for television on the concept of beauty in modern art. The series offered six films that ran the gambit of opinion on contemporary art, but it is the film by the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton, Why Beauty Matters, that I wish to address here.

As a working artist I found myself in general agreement with some points made in Scruton’s film; that appreciating and creating things of beauty is a necessary part of the human experience, that beauty is “a value as important as truth and goodness,” that it has been central to civilization, and that “it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings.” We agree that there is a spiritual aspect to beauty - though we would likely disagree over a definition of “spiritual.” So yes, beauty does indeed matter, and I am of the opinion that it should be central in all the various disciplines of the arts; but perhaps my definition of such an elusive and ephemeral thing as beauty is more expansive than Mr. Scruton’s, whose vision seems to be restricted to what is known as European “classicism.” I am at variance with a number of his assumptions and inferences; the particulars of my differences are in part laid out in this article.

Postmodern art makes for an easy target, as it is has altogether forsaken skill, craft, and beauty - the very things most people think of when considering the arts. Postmodern artists from the late 1960s to the early 1970s attempted to remove art from the marketplace by creating “conceptual” works, i.e., performance, video, installation, etc., instead of merchandise for market consumption. We have seen how well that worked out. The art movement that previously strove for the “dematerialization of the art object,” as pro-conceptualist art critic and activist Lucy Lippard put it in 1973, has today placed itself in unwavering service to the elite art establishment it once sought to circumvent. Capitalism co-opted and absorbed conceptual art, which has become more of a commodity fetish than any of its other art world predecessors; it is synonymous with astronomical prices, billionaire art collectors, and shamelessly venal celebrity art stars - all good enough reasons to disparage it in my view. But that is my critique, not Roger Scruton’s.

"Zuerst die Füsse" (Feet First) Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997). Painted wood sculpture created in 1990. Shown in "Why Beauty Matters."

"Zuerst die Füsse" (Feet First) Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997). Painted wood sculpture created in 1990. Shown in "Why Beauty Matters."

In Why Beauty Matters the soft-spoken and erudite Scruton makes a populist argument against much of contemporary art that will no doubt strike a chord with significant numbers of people. But seeing as how the general public is largely indifferent to the goings-on of the art world, Scruton’s presentation provides surprisingly little insight into the field of art, instead he sets up a straw man, fueling the fires of misunderstanding by focusing on the more egregious examples of postmodern excess (for instance, Turner Prize winner Martin Creed’s Sick Film Work 610), then suggesting that liberal elites, moral dissipation, and the loss of religion are the reasons behind such works being produced. What I find interesting is that Scruton does not explicitly state such opinion in his film, he alludes to it - but he reveals his stance with more clarity and honesty in his writings. For example, in a 2006 essay titled Quo vadis? (Latin for, “Where are you going?”) he uncategorically declared his position:

“We cannot rescue our civilization merely by overthrowing the Marxist, post-Marxist, deconstructionist and postmodern ideologies that inhabit the universities. Even if we returned to the classical curriculum, and taught European culture as it was taught to me, that would not bring back the public consensus on which our civilization depends. (….) The most important thing on which European people can be encouraged to agree is that our inheritance is Judaeo-Christian, and that the Bible, and the two religions built on it, are an indispensable part of our culture.”

There are moments in Why Beauty Matters where Scruton sounds like a critic of the capitalist culture industry, as in the following comment;

“Our consumer society puts usefulness first, and beauty is no better than a side-effect. Since art is useless it doesn’t matter what you read, what you look at, what you listen to. We are besieged by messages on every side, titillated - tempted by appetite - never addressed, and that is one reason why beauty is disappearing from our world. ‘Getting and spending’ wrote Wordsworth ‘we lay waste our powers.’ In our culture today the advert is more important than the work of art, and artworks often try to capture our attention as adverts do, by being brash or outrageous. (….) Like adverts, today’s works of art aim to create a brand - even if they have no product to sell, except themselves.”

On the surface level Scruton’s remarks may have a ring of truth to them, but ultimately his critique boils down to right-wing populism, never attributing the crisis in modern art to the pernicious role of money - as did Robert Hughes in his fabulous The Mona Lisa Curse - but to liberalism and the waning influence of religion in the West. Why Beauty Matters is very nearly ahistorical in its presentation.

Detail of the marble sculpture, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). An outstanding architect and perhaps the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, Bernini originated the Baroque style of sculpture - of which his Ecstasy of St. Teresa (created 1647-52) is a primary example. Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Detail of the marble sculpture, "Ecstasy of St. Teresa," by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). An outstanding architect and perhaps the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, Bernini originated the Baroque style of sculpture - of which his "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" (created 1647-52) is a primary example. Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

While Scruton points out how certain philosophers of old influenced the world of European art, and he briefly makes mention of the substantial impact science had upon the arts, he never once mentions the central issue of patronage - a deciding factor in art history. In the film Scruton takes an almost mystical approach in describing how spirituality and religion have historically been linked to concepts of beauty, while completely ignoring the role of the Church as the primary financial backer and authority in the arts. Likewise, he ignores the role of monarchists and other ruling elites, who also tightly controlled art by way of patronage. Artists did not begin to free themselves of this rigid control until the early 19th century.

In one of his recently published articles, Beauty and Desecration, Scruton wrote that “Modern artists like Otto Dix too often wallow in the base and the loveless.” That observation reveals much about Scruton, and how the two of us have divergent concepts of what is beautiful. Dix lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of German history. He fought in the trenches of World War I where he saw humanity ripped to shreds in the world’s first mechanized war. At war’s end he became politicized, and through his art expressed disdain for militarism and Germany’s ruling class. He witnessed the fall of the German monarchy, the rise of the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi seizure of power. In their brutal repression of the arts, the Nazis removed Dix from the Prussian Academy and his professorship at the Dresden Art Academy - his dismissal letter declaring that his art “threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves.”

"Lady with Mink and Veil" - Otto Dix. Oil on Linen. 1920. Dix painted this portrait of an old war widow forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive.

"Lady with Mink and Veil" - Otto Dix. Oil on Linen. 1920. Dix painted this portrait of an old war widow forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive.

Dix was forbidden to exhibit by the Nazis, they removed his artworks from museums and had them destroyed. They included his paintings in their infamous 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit, meant to condemn modern art as the work of Bolsheviks, “Jews,” and the insane. Dix was forcibly conscripted into the fascist home guard in 1945 at the age of 53, captured and later released by the French army at the close of the war. Given that chronicle, it is shocking that Scruton would accuse Dix of wallowing in the “loveless.” What type of art would Scruton have preferred to see Dix paint during that despairing period - inoffensive still lifes? Considering the barbarity that was all around him, it is remarkable that Dix painted anything at all, but even the most distorted of his expressionist grotesqueries contained more truth, and yes, beauty - than all the realistic classical nudes and respectable portraits commissioned by the German bourgeoisie of the period. Dix’s creations were beautiful, simply by virtue of the truths they told.

In Why Beauty Matters Scruton disavows modern architecture, and at one point in the film he takes the viewer on a tour through the community near London where he grew up, “a charming Victorian town with terraced streets and Gothic churches, crowned by elegant public buildings and smart hotels.” Scruton’s community was forever altered starting in the 1960s, when homes were demolished to make way for a substantial number of large office buildings and a bus station that brought people to and from London. Scruton claims the brand new modernist style buildings - “all designed without consideration for beauty” - were proof that “if you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless.”

Roger Scruton in his now blighted hometown of Redding, near London. He tells us that: "Beauty is assailed from two directions, by the cult of ugliness in the arts, and by the cult of utility in everyday life. These two cults come together in the world of modern architecture." Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Roger Scruton in his now blighted hometown of Redding, near London. He tells us that: "Beauty is assailed from two directions, by the cult of ugliness in the arts, and by the cult of utility in everyday life. These two cults come together in the world of modern architecture." Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Today the office buildings and the bus station are boarded up and abandoned; everything has been vandalized and covered with graffiti. The once thriving community is now dilapidated and in a state of neglect, “but we shouldn’t blame the vandals” Scruton insists, “this place was built by vandals, and those that added the graffiti merely finished the job.”

Standing in front of a large deserted office, Scruton says; “This building is boarded up because nobody has a use for it, nobody has a use for it because nobody wants to be in it, nobody wants to be in it because the thing is so damn ugly.” That assertion is pure demagoguery - of course people have a use for the building! There are countless “ugly” buildings currently serving as vital centers of community life, whether in housing, commerce or government. While some may find uninviting architecture to be depressing, that is not what leads to the collapse of urban centers; cities and towns shut down for economic reasons. The property owners that financed and directed the construction of the buildings Scruton deems offensive have now found it more profitable to close and padlock their properties, or have them razed to the ground; such are the workings of capitalism.

In his analysis of architecture and urban decay Scruton makes no mention of government policy or economics, as if towns and cities collapse into ruin simply because people have an aversion to unsightly architecture. He says nothing of the pressures brought about by layoffs and astronomical unemployment, cuts in government services, privatization, inflation, recession, and an increasingly globalized capitalist economy. He does not talk about the role of banks, real estate firms, and other financial interests that fail to invest in communities considered “unprofitable.” Regarding the decades long collapse of his home town near London, Scruton does not bring up Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, whose economic policies resulted in unrelenting assaults upon the British and Irish working class, the destruction of British industry, and crushing unemployment that by 1982 had put well over 3 million people out of work.

In 1961 Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement in 90 small cans and sold the "edition" as art. Cans are in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern, London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Screen capture from the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In 1961 Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement in 90 small cans and sold the "edition" as art. Cans are in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern, London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Screen capture from the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In Why Beauty Matters Scruton seems reluctant to say just who is responsible for all of this unappealing architecture, but as I have previously noted, he is more than willing to lay blame in his published articles. In The modern cult of ugliness, a December 2009 article for the Daily Mail, Scruton lets us know who the culprits are; “official uglification of our world is the work of the ivory-towered elites of the liberal classes - people who have little sympathy for how the rest of us live and who, with their mania for modernizing, are happy to rip up beliefs that have stood the test of time for millennia.”

Roger Scruton’s credentials are impeccable; a Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Oxford University’s Blackfriars Hall, a Research Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia, a Fellow of the British Academy, and the author of more than 30 books on cultural and political affairs. As should be apparent from reading this article, this learned man is also an ardent conservative. Scruton is quite well-known in Britain for his outspokenness, but less renowned in the U.S., apart from being appreciated in certain right-wing circles. He is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (home to such U.S. neoconservative luminaries as Michael Novak and Irving Kristol - the now deceased “godfather of neoconservatism”).

Mr. Scruton has been a columnist for a number of conservative publications. In Totalitarian Sentimentality, his Dec. 2009 article for the neoconservative journal The American Spectator, Scruton makes clear his view that conservatism best guards all things noble and just, while liberalism is but a hair’s breadth from tyranny and despotism. Scruton’s fervent political conservatism is inseparable from his views on art and culture.

In June of 2006, Scruton was invited to speak in Antwerp, Belgium before the Vlaams Belang (”Flemish Interest”), an extreme right-wing party of Flemish ultra-nationalists who seek the independence of Flanders. Variously described as xenophobic, racist, and fascist by their numerous opponents, the platform of Vlaams Belang calls for; Deportation of all economic immigrants who fail to assimilate, Repeal of anti-racism and anti-discrimination legislation, and full and unconditional amnesty for people convicted of collaboration with Nazi Germany. By having addressed the Vlaams Belang on the subject of his opposition to multiculturalism, Scruton makes it exceedingly difficult for his views on art and culture to be taken seriously - at least by this artist.

Roger Scruton’s Why Beauty Matters is available for viewing on YouTube in 6 parts that are each approximately 10 minutes long. I have summarized each part below. I encourage everyone to view Mr. Scruton’s film in its totality.

UPDATE 2/28/2014: The YouTube video originally linked to in this article was removed. However, the “Documentary Addict” website now offers the complete Why Beauty Matters video.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 1)
Scruton states in the opening of the film; “In the 20th century, beauty stopped being important. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, and to break moral taboos. It was not beauty but ‘originality,’ however achieved, and at whatever moral cost, that won the prizes. Not only has art made a cult of ugliness, architecture to has become soulless and sterile. (…) One word is writ large on all these ugly things, and that word is ‘Me,’ my profits, my desires, my pleasures, and art has nothing to say in response to this except, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ I think we are losing beauty, and there is a danger that with it, we are losing the meaning of life.” At the end of this clip, Scruton engages postmodern artist Michael Craig-Martin in a discussion about the nature of modern art.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 2)
Scruton’s conversation with Michael Craig-Martin continues in this section, with a short but quite remarkable conversation about conceptual artist Piero Manzoni - who canned his own excrement and sold it as art. Scruton continues with a general denunciation of modern art as an auxiliary to advertising and hyper-consumerism, before beginning a critique of modern architecture. He targets the “father” of modernist architecture, Louis Sullivan, for his credo of “form follows function.” Scruton avers that “Sullivan’s doctrine has been used to justify the greatest crime against beauty that the world has yet seen - and that is the crime of modern architecture.”

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 3)
In part 3 Scruton continues to assail modern architecture, which he asserts, is so dreadful that “it is there simply to be demolished.” He extols “traditional architecture, with its decorative details,” and tells us that in architecture “ornaments liberate us from the tyranny of the useful, and satisfy our need for harmony.” In the remainder of this clip, Scruton presents the basic precepts behind his philosophy on art.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 4)
In this clip Scruton describes how the clash between religion and enlightenment ideas impacted the world of art. He mentions the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), an English philosopher and writer who linked beauty with moral virtue - saying the two are “one and the same.” Shaftesbury’s ideas, Scruton tells us; “encouraged the cult of beauty, which raised the appreciation of art and nature to the place once occupied by the worship of God. Beauty was to fill the God shaped hole made by science. Artists were no longer illustrators of the sacred stories, who worked as servants of the church, they were discovering the stories for themselves by interpreting the secrets of nature.” Scruton also touches upon the aesthetical ideas of German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the Classical Greek philosopher, Plato (429-347 BC).

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 5)
In this clip Scruton explores the connection art has had to the West’s Christian religious traditions, and what he calls the defilement of those traditions by modern art. Scruton insists that art can redeem even the most tragic, sordid, and depraved reality. Here he contrasts Eugene Delacroix’s 1827 painting of the artist’s unmade bed (Un Lit défait), to Tracey Emin’s 1998 My Bed (an actual untidy bed with sheets stained by body secretions, the surrounding floor scattered with condoms, cigarette butts, and soiled underwear. Scruton comments on the juxtaposition; “There is all the difference in the world between a real work of art - which makes ugliness beautiful - and a fake work of art, which shares the ugliness that it shows.”

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 6)
Scruton concludes by saying that art has become “a slave to the consumer culture, feeding our pleasures and addictions and wallowing in self-disgust. That, it seems to me, is the lesson of the ugliest forms of modern art and architecture. They do not show reality, but take revenge on it, spoiling what might have been a home, and leaving us to wander unconsoled and alienated in a spiritual desert. Of course it is true that there is much in the world today that distracts and troubles us. Our lives are full of leftovers, we battle through lies and distraction, and nothing resolves. The right response however, is not to endorse this alienation - it is to look back to the path from the desert; one that will point us to a place where the real and the ideal may still exist in harmony.”

COIN: Pentagon Postmodern

The History of the World - Jeremy Deller. 2004. Pencil and paint on wall. Installation dimensions variable. Turner Prize winner Deller standing in front of his wall chart, The History of the World, at the Turner Gallery. Photo by Associated Press.

"The History of the World" - Jeremy Deller. 2004. Pencil and paint on wall. Installation dimensions variable. Turner Prize winner Deller standing in front of his wall chart at the Turner Gallery. Photo by Associated Press.

In 2004 Jeremy Deller won Britain’s most prestigious art award - The Turner Prize - for his short video, Memory Bucket.

Documenting Deller’s travels through the State of Texas, the film impressed the judges at the Tate Modern in London sufficiently enough for them to honor Deller with their highest award, plus a check for $48,000. That Deller admitted he cannot paint, draw, or sculpt to save his life was no impediment to his being proclaimed numero uno in the world of postmodern art; at least for a brief moment in time.

The History of the World - Jeremy Deller (Detail).

"The History of the World" - Jeremy Deller (Detail).

Deller had actually submitted a number of installations to the Tate’s annual art competition, Memory Bucket being just one of them. In the room at the Tate that displayed all of Deller’s works, one could find his wall chart, The History of the World. Supposedly an exploration of the connections between working class brass bands and the 1980s acid house scene, the chart is a jumble of hand scrawled lines and arrows, along with the names of important bands, events, places, and concepts in music.

Deller’s chart is all but incomprehensible - even to music lovers and historians. But then, striving to create works that are easy to comprehend has never been a strong point for postmodern conceptual artists. Nonetheless, Deller’s The History of the World has been an obvious inspiration to a rather unlikely group of artists, the U.S. military’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - who are also reported to possess a total lack of skill when it comes to painting, drawing, or sculpting.

Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security. Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009. Unclassified document digitally printed on non-archival paper with foam core backing and laminated surface. Installation dimensions variable.

"Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security." Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009. Unclassified document digitally printed on non-archival paper with foam core backing and laminated surface. Installation dimensions variable.

Trying their hands at conceptual art, the Joint Chiefs have created a wall chart installation titled Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security, a brash reference to the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, “COIN” for short, which the Obama administration is currently applying in the Afghan war.

While their work has a strong political dimension, the Joint Chiefs have to their credit avoided the tedious moralizing so common with much of today’s political art. By dispensing with outdated notions of craft, skill, and narrative (at least one that makes any sense), the Chiefs have given us a hardheaded no-nonsense look at what really lies behind America’s “necessary war” - confusion, bewilderment, and stupefaction.

The eddy of lines and arrows swirling across the face of Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics – Security, pulls the viewer into the work’s dense subtext having to do with counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, and the impenetrable text that floats on the surface of the piece like an opaque cloud of obscurantist chatter (”Western Affiliation Backlash-Acceptance of Afghan Methods-Overall Government Capacity”) only points to the futility of attempting to make sense of the world. To fully appreciate this ephemeral work, one must put aside logic, as well as any attempt to understand history - just as the Joint Chiefs have clearly done.

Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security (Detail). Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009.

"Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security" (Detail). Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 2009.

If Jeremy Deller gave us a fractious view of the world with his unsteady scribbles and nervous squiggles, the Joint Chiefs have delivered order and tranquility with their clean lines and methodically arranged catchphrases. They have created an installation to rival the Turner Prize winning wall chart produced by Mr. Deller; in fact Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security is a postmodern masterwork that will long be remembered after the last body bags are flown out of Kabul.

Every good postmodernist knows that an artwork’s true value is determined solely by its price tag and not some foolishness like “intrinsic spirituality”, or gads - “beauty.” It was wonderful when Jeremy Deller was given $48,000 along with his Tate prize, and it was even more fantastic when Damien Hirst sold his diamond encrusted platinum skull sculpture, For the Love of God, for $100 million. But with the creation of the Joint Chief’s Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security piece, one need ask - what is being born, exactly? It might be the art of the 21st century! Surely by its price tag alone that is so; it took the Joint Chiefs’ $636 billion to produce Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security, making it the most expensive piece of art ever produced. Time will tell whether or not there will be a buyer.

MSNBC wrote an extensive review of the Joint Chief’s Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - Security installation piece that should be read by all. Click here for a large version of the artwork. Now that the war is finally escalating in Afghanistan and spilling over into Pakistan, one can only imagine what the next conceptual work from the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be like - and what it will cost.